I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides in 2003 when it won the Pullitzer prize and was fascinated by the glittering originality of the style as well as by the subject matter: Greek immigration into the USA and the experience of “daughter” who is genetically male. Even the title is a stroke of genius. So I read it again during one of those interminable lockdowns and was just as riveted 20 years on. That led me to an urge to explore (reading is a lifelong journey of discovery, after all) anything else that Eugenides has written – and thus to The Virgin Suicides, his debut novel which was published in 1993.
It’s set in Grosse Point, Michigan, not far from where Eugenides was born in Detroit (1960). It’s a small, insular, lakeside community. According to Wikipedia it still had only just over 5000 inhabitants in real life in 2010. The unnamed narrator is one of a group of teenage boys looking back investigatively two decades later on the time when they watched the Lisbon house obsessively back in the 1970s. They still have numbered items of evidence salvaged from the house and they have obsessively conducted interviews with people who remember what happened.
And the reader knows the outline of what happened almost from page one and the title is a giveaway, obviously. All five Lisbon daughters commit suicide. For Cecilia, who dies a year before her sisters, and for Mary it takes two attempts. Bonnie, Therese and Lux manage it first time each using a different method. No one – in that claustrophobic environment – really understands why although it appears to be some sort of pact.
What Eugenides does so beautifully is to build up the tension as we learn – very gradually – how events unfolded and there’s a faint stylistic whiff of To Kill Mockingbird as he tantalisingly shifts back and forth in time. I love the idea of five girls – shades of Pride and Prejudice – all immaculately differentiated. One is promiscuous and finds a way of secretly allowing a whole succession of boys to get to her on the roof of her family home. Another habitually wears a tattered wedding dress. A third lights candles. There’s a lot of mystery and weirdness. They are rarely allowed out although the boys see them at school where their wan, troubled father teaches maths until he’s dismissed. There is one memorable date night when all five are taken to a school dance by five boys and one tightly chaperoned party at the Lisbon house but otherwise it’s the unanswered questions surrounding the girls which makes them so alluring to the boys of the town. Their mother is misguided, confused and strictly dictatorial which is maybe why her daughters, eventually, do the only thing they can control.
As, in Middlesex, the writing style fizzes and dances freshly and, partly a study of adolescence, it’s often gently lyrical No wonder The Virgin Suicides has been translated into 34 languages and was adapted into an acclaimed film (1999) by Sofia Coppola. As for me, I shall now investigate the rest of Eugenides’s back list, including some short stories
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Laurie Lee Selected Poems